As more and more people are freelancing these days (whether it was their own choice or not), an increasing number are also realizing that doing so from New York City, San Francisco, or any other expensive city doesn’t really make sense. I’m among the group of so-called “digital nomads” who has been location-independent for over a year now, saving money and having a great time by traveling all over Asia instead of a more expensive lifestyle in the States.
It’s definitely true that you can actually live on far less in many parts of the world, even in hotels and short-term apartments, but actually running your own freelance “business” isn’t quite as easy as it might first seem. Getting paid a First World rate while partying on Third World prices really can be a great way to get yourself started as an independent professional, as long as you take things like the following into account.
1. Acquire skills and clients before you leave
I’ve seen many people on travel messageboards who plan to take on this lifestyle, and some of them reckon they can save up a bit of cash, quit their fulltime job, and then head out on the road before picking up freelance work. This is (almost always) a mistake. Not only is the freelance market more crowded than you realize, and wages for services probably lower than you realize, but living on the road will be very disorienting at first, making it a tough time to find new work.
Yes, there are always loads of jobs on offer on eLance, oDesk, and even on Craigslist all over the world, but competition for them is so fierce that you are likely to make very little when you take your “admin time” into account. I recently posted a gig for a logo for a website for US$30 and within 3 hours I’d received 33 applications, including many who tried to undercut their competition by taking a lower price. Add in all that time applying for jobs and learning the specs from ones you get, and it’s a tough life regardless of where you are living.
For these reasons, and some others below, you are far better off establishing yourself as a freelancer long before you put your stuff in storage. Do it for 6 months while you are winding down your job, or work like crazy if you are already unemployed, and then set out once you have some steady clients or regular work.
2. Picking up clients locally can be challenging, but not impossible
Especially for laptop workers, it’s tempting to plan on picking up some local work as you go. Unfortunately, this tends to be very difficult, with a few exceptions. Part of the strategy of this lifestyle is arbitraging your presence by making Western wages while paying Eastern prices. This means that a local web developer or designer can live a decent lifestyle by charging only a dollar or two an hour. You don’t even want to try to compete with that, even if your skills are clearly better.
An exception to this can be something like building or improving websites for local hotels or apartment agents. Especially in Asia, “Engrish” is shockingly common all over, so someone who can actually put together a properly professional website, in English, can sometimes trade that skill for a nice room for anywhere from a week to a month. So you might trade 10 hours of your labor, give or take, and save perhaps US$200 or more on accommodation. The fact that no money comes out of their pocket makes a huge difference in these places, and puts you into the game if you are smart about it.
3. Don’t assume internet access will be fast or easy to find
As I recently discussed in tips for finding internet while traveling and working, sometimes the situation is a surprise, and that can drag your productivity down to almost nothing in the worst cases. For example, Malaysia is actually very modern, yet internet speeds throughout the country are among the slowest in the region. So a kick-ass serviced apartment in Kuala Lumpur might turn into a mini-nightmare if you were hoping to get big projects done in that time.
The trick is to research well in advance, and don’t schedule or commit to work unless you are confident you’ll be able to pull it off from where you’ll be then. Europe is notoriously difficult for finding available Wi-Fi outlets, even though speeds are very good once (and if) you find them.
4. Ergonomics matter, a lot
One of the not-so-obvious factors in the digital nomad lifestyle is that workday ergonomics will make a huge difference in your productivity on the road. When you are in your comfortable chair and working with the dual monitors on your own desk, everything seems easy. But see how fast you can work while lying across the hard bed, hunched over your 15″ laptop, in an otherwise-wonderful US$10 per night hotel room in Thailand.
The sad truth is that most of these cheaper rooms will have a small-and-low table with a plastic chair in the best circumstances, and sometimes you’ve literally got nothing more than a bed. You have to take this into account when you are moving around, and not assume that you can pull off a solid 6 or 8-hour work day. This is when renting an apartment for a month or two is ideal, or at least scouting around and maybe paying more for a hotel with a proper workspace.
5. Plan your schedule carefully
As I’ve discussed in a couple of points above, you can’t expect yourself to hit the road and put in 40-hour workweeks at the same time. Pretty much everyone who has tried this has become very distracted at first, often on purpose, and only settled into a good groove after a couple months or more.
Renting apartments along the way is a good way to maximize your work time, but finding and renting them before you arrive usually means paying way over the market price or running a big risk of locking in a place that actually sucks. So arriving and then spending a couple days looking around is always worthwhile, but those are hours or even days when you won’t be working, so think about your work schedule and jobs well in advance.